It was borderline unfair, the way Phil Mickelson walloped the entire field in his Champions Tour debut. Mickelson dusted everything in his wake at the Charles Schwab Series at Ozark National, posting scores of 61-64-66 to finish four strokes clear of the field for an easy wire-to-wire win.
Mickelson turned 50 over the summer, making him eligible to join the tour circuit, and he did what 20 others coming straight from the PGA Tour have done: won right out of the gate. It wasn’t exactly a huge shock, but it was still impressive and, hell, inspirational.
The PGA Tour Champions — a less ageist name than its former moniker, the Senior Tour — holds the distinction of being the only sports league where the rookies are always the favorites. Created at a time when aging past 50 meant you were pasture-ready in golf, the Champions Tour has persisted even as players’ training regimens have markedly improved. Fifty isn’t a brick wall anymore in golf; it’s a speed bump.
No sport is more in love with its own history than golf, and the Champions Tour gives old-school golf fans a chance to see their long-ago favorites still doin’ their thing, just a bit slower and creakier than in their salad days. The PGA Tour’s now filled with millennial names like Dustin, Justin and Brooks; the Champions Tour is packed with good ol’ golf pro shop names like Jeff, Bob and Ken. And now, Phil.
Mickelson, who recorded a T2 finish at a PGA Tour event earlier this month, came into the oddly-scheduled Monday-to-Wednesday tournament firing away. His opening-round 61, on a no-rough, open-pin course, showed that while he may not be able to hang with the Koepkas of the world any longer, he’s got plenty of game to take down the Steve Strickers and Jim Furyks.
Look, it’s easy to laugh off Mickelson’s achievement as an unfair matchup, the golf equivalent of LeBron James rolling over a neighborhood pickup basketball game. Mickelson’s odds to win the tournament were as low as +220 (bet $100 to win $220); that’s getting in the neighborhood of prime Tiger right there.
Woods himself knows just how much of an advantage Mickelson currently owns. “He was already one of the longest hitters out here [on the PGA Tour],” Woods said Wednesday at the BMW Championship, “and now he goes to where he’s going to pick up a huge advantage off the tee ... There’s no reason why he can’t win every event he plays out there. He’s got such a big advantage over the rest of the field just with sheer length.”
In a venue where youth is king — I’m talking all of sports, not just golf — Mickelson’s achievement is a reminder that not all your best days have to be behind you. No one’s going to equate any Champions Tour event with one of the four majors. Still, winning is winning, no matter what the situation.
There’s a reason why golf fans admire the play of Woods but adore the play of Mickelson: because Phil does exactly what we do, only more so. He gets himself into trouble on a daily basis, and yet has the game to punch his way out. He looks like he’s actually having fun on the course, a stark contrast to Woods, and he’s as quick with a one-liner as he is with a wager. Mickelson always fancies himself the smartest guy in the room, even if “the room” is an entire open golf course. That’s a pretty appealing image for a whole lot of golf fans.
Two questions have circled around Phil’s head the last few years. One: can he win a U.S. Open and finally complete that career Grand Slam? Last year, after falling short at yet another U.S. Open, Mickelson finally seemed to concede that, no, it probably won’t happen for him.
Which leads to the second question: What will Phil do next? It’s tough maintaining your pose and your poise when you’re not even making cuts. Mickelson had an impressive debut behind the mic at the PGA Championship, but there’s a question of whether he’d want to commit to traveling all around the country without a club in his hand.
The Champions Tour could be just what Mickelson needs: the juice of a challenge on a weekly basis ... but not too much of a challenge. As he’s proving, there’s always another room to conquer.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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